LAST YEAR, I said that Ben Bova's "Mars" might be "the book about the red planet." That was before I read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars."
It's really unfair to compare the two science-fiction novels but perhaps unavoidable, given their title and similar settings. Bova's presents a masterful assertion for the case for sending a manned mission to Mars, with a grand adventure story filled with interesting characters. This is no mean feat, but Robinson's ambitions are larger.
Instead of presenting the first landing, Robinson begins with the first colony. His characters are not explorers like Columbus or Neil Armstrong, who find their motivation in traveling to some far, alien place and coming back to tell about it. Instead, they are the first Martians, the first humans who will make the Mars their home, the first to live there and the first to die there.
"There were no Martians before we came," says John Boone, Robinson's Neil Armstrong of Mars, who has come back to be one of the leaders of the colony. The book opens with his death, years after the landing of the First 100, as the initial crew of colonists comes to be called.
Sprawling over decades, Robinson's novel provides the early history of the colony. The characters are interesting and fully realized, which is no surprise - Robinson has already established a reputation for realistic characters. But this novel takes Robinson's career to a new plane.
The story is told from the viewpoints of a number of different characters, and each time we see someone from the inside for the first time, we remember and rethink previous scenes in which their actions have been viewed by someone else. For instance, at the very end of the book we are finally asked to see through the eyes of Ann Clayborne, an American geologist - she calls herself an "areologist," since it is "Ares," not "Gaia," she is studying.
Ann is one of the major characters, but until the end we see her only through the eyes of others, most of whom regard her as an obstructionist. Even before she becomes the "viewpoint character," it is clear that she is not simply that. She wants to study Mars; that's why she came: to study unique conditions that have existed not just for millenia but for aeons. The others, in small or large ways, are involved in changing the planet to make it livable for human beings. Sax Russell is her particular antagonist, a fellow areologist who wants to terraform Mars as quickly as possible. If he succeeds, what she came to study will cease to exist.
After her viewpoint takes over the narration, her motivation is not only clearer but more complex. I wanted to reread the novel immediately, to replay scenes between Sax and Ann in my head. Even Frank Chalmers, the first colonist Robinson uses as a "viewpoint character," is more fully revealed by the end.
Of course, the technique of switching viewpoints has been used many, many times before, but seldom this well. Robinson makes it more than a technique. The book becomes, on rereading and remembering, a mosaic whole that is greater than its parts.
Ironically, one of the most striking differences between Robinson's book and Bova's is the little matter (at least I regard it as a little matter) of "pure" science fiction: the projection of what we actually know scientifically, rigorously grounded in reality.
Sure, we don't know there isn't life on Mars - in answer to one of Ann's objections, Sax Russell points out that we can never know for sure there isn't until every cubic inch or the entire planet has been probed, for negatives are hard to prove. But everything we do know indicates the overwhelming probability that Mars is as dead as the Moon, though less forbidding to the introduction of life. If there are ever any Martians, they will almost certainly be our descendants.
Bova's deus-ex-biologica lifeform has nothing wrong with it per se, but it is ironic that Robinson - not known, as Bova is, for rigorous scientism - has held more closely to the opinions of the current scientific community.
Instead of merely a grand adventure story, Robinson has written a history of the first Martians. This is epic science fiction in the best sense of the term - thoughtful, provoking and haunting. I feel sure the book will repay rereadings long into the future.
That's why it's not fair to compare "Red Mars" to "Mars." Maybe to "Dune."
Maybe not, in the long run. Ask me again in 10 or 20 years. But on a first reading, it seems that good.
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